Photography by Lucy Alice B.
27th November, 2011. That’s comfortably over ten years ago now. It’s been ten years and I still remember it like it happened last week. Thinking about that fact, I never realised at the time just how profound an effect it would have on me.
After a stellar career on the field amassing 535 apps and 80 Premier League goals, and a spectacular start off of it as he ventured into management, reports came flooding in on national television and press of how ex-footballer and then Wales men’s national team manager, Gary Speed, had been found dead in his home. I couldn’t comprehend it. My brain couldn’t hear those words strung together in that sentence, and make it make sense. He had just appeared on Football Focus, literally the day before. He was lively, passionate, and excited about everything in the pipeline with the Welsh team. He was a Premier League legend, and one of football’s nice guys (off the pitch, anyway). He was a fan’s favourite pretty much wherever he played, but especially during his spells at Leeds United (1988-96) and Newcastle United (1998-2004), respectively. He’d taken charge of Wales in February, and his life came to a terribly premature end just a few months later. It’s been over ten years, and at times I still struggle with accepting it.
I’m not sure what it was about his suicide that got to me more than any other famous figure up to that point. But, I think it may perhaps have something to do with my sheer love for football. The sport captures you, usually for the rest of your life—once you’re in, you’re in. To see someone within that space on an exciting new journey, but also someone that was your everyday bloke when he wasn’t on your screen suddenly taking their own life? At the time I had just turned twenty-one, and was going through one of the lowest periods of mine. I went straight online to read as much as I could about what exactly happened, and to try and find out why. Mainly because of him, but also to a lesser extent, because of me.
The first article I found was on thecalmzone.net—a small and relatively unassuming website that wanted to raise awareness about the incredibly high suicide rates among young men in the United Kingdom. The Campaign Against Living Miserably mentioned that suicide was the biggest killer of men between 15-35, more than knife crime and road accidents combined. Combined. Around that time, my depression remained undiagnosed and I had no idea why I felt as fucking terrible as I did. Depression was a word that would rarely be uttered in South Asian society due to the stigma surrounding it all. We weren’t taught about it in school. It was only later down to my own experience, did I learn that my father suffered from severe depression, not too far off from the age I was then. Understandably, his experience was amplified by moving to another country where your first language isn’t theirs, finding a job, getting constant racist abuse from white locals, looking after his entire family, as well as raising his own. In comparison, my life seemed cosy, which only ended up making me question myself even more—his generation actually had it hard. What have I had to deal with? I relayed this all to him after I came home having been diagnosed. He told me one of the worst things I could do at that moment is compare myself to other people. Everyone has their own devil, everyone has their own struggles, and no one thing is more important, or worse, than another. It’s just a different fight. And one that takes every ounce of strength to tackle. I was horribly insecure, had been through some fairly intense break ups, and dealing with all sorts of self-inflicted pressure in regards to my university work, music and growing brand. I wanted to be the best at everything—which was always a massively unattainable thing—and even though I knew it wasn’t logical, I still hated myself for not achieving it all anyway.
Going back to the question: what was it about Gary Speed’s passing that really forced me to pay attention to what was going on in my head? It was the default response I had when I first saw the news, ‘but he’s got the perfect life. Why would he do such a thing? Hell, my life isn’t perfect, but if I killed myself would people say the same thing about me? I'd hope not. They have no idea what I’m going through.’ It made me realise that there’s so much more to someone than what they let you see. We’ve always had a habit of editing ourselves. Bearing in mind, too, Instagram had literally only just been invented, so we didn’t even have any of the hyper-presence we now do with social media and always being "on". We curate our lives for acceptance. In the next couple of years that followed, I started working closely with CALM to tell people about the gender-skewed suicide statistics in the United Kingdom and how 78% of all suicides were committed by men. Through my own personal experiences with depression, I was able to have conversations with strangers online, as well as some of my oldest friends who would open up and talk about their personal experiences — be it depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, you name it. People who I never would’ve guessed to have been going through the things they were.
If Gary Speed’s passing was untimely, when one of my favourite actors—and one of the world’s greatest comedians—Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014, I was fucking shell-shocked. Williams literally built a career around making people laugh. He was phenomenal at it. I think I actually cried. It was so, so, soul-destroying. I loved everything I saw him in. Hell, even in Robots, the character he voiced was my favourite. It was devastating. And each year, Instagram’s On This Day likes to remind me of it. His autopsy revealed that Williams had Lewy body Dementia. In an article by the Guardian, his wife, responding to people’s general belief that Williams’ suicide was an act of his own will rather than LBD, was quoted saying poignantly, “how we as a culture don’t have the vocabulary to discuss brain disease in the way we do about depression. Depression is a symptom of LBD and it’s not about psychology — it’s rooted in neurology. His brain was falling apart.” There are so many possible reasons why he, and men around the world, take their lives. Neurological. Financial. Societal. Relationships. Family. Loss. Trauma.
As of today in the UK, 125 people die by suicide every week. We can’t keep asking and reacting after the fact. More has to be done to help people, earlier. It was only in 2018 that the UK government introduced a Minister for Care and Mental Health role, and an announcement of a £10million fund for schools and colleges to train a senior mental health lead came only last month. These things take time, and there’s a long way to go. We need to talk more openly, more constantly, and sooner, about depression, suicide prevention and mental health overall. 125 people every week is 125 too many.
More granularly, we need to be more aware of our own personal actions and realise the impact our words can have on others, be it in person or online. A throwaway statement could be so influential to someone else’s well being. In a world that is seemingly falling apart all around us, it’s imperative that now more than ever we act positively, and ensure we bring good into this world at every opportunity. They don't have to be enormous gestures, either. Drop a friend a text to check in on them. Tell a friend, a family member, a loved one, how much you appreciate them. Go arrange a catch up with someone you've been wanting to catch up with. Something so small can make such a difference. I need to do it more, but man, how I could’ve done with hearing it more, too. If someone opens up to you, you don't need to provide answers. Sometimes just being a sounding board is the best thing you can do in that moment. An opportunity for them to breathe, to exhale, to clear the fog. We best express empathy by listening. And not acting like we're listening to show that we're listening, but actually listening. To be paid attention to, and cared about. It's what we all need at some point. If you can provide that for someone, you're heading down the right path.
Life has a horrible habit of throwing us curveballs and derailing our entire existence without a second thought. There are things that will forever be out of our control, but it’s the things within our control that will define our time here, no matter how fleeting it all may seem. Make it count.